Just as Passing Strange was much more than a staged concert when it played on Broadway, Spike Lee's film of Passing Strange is far more than just a document of the stage performance.
Yes, Lee filmed the final show of the Tony-winning musical's Broadway run. But this film takes you so far inside the work that you never feel the distance that an audience member would feel sitting in the audience watching the stage. He makes this a movie, not a filmed play.
Lee has several things working in his favor, aside from the fluidly gorgeous cinematography of Matthew Libatique. For starters, there's the show itself -- a rock'n'roll musical that really rocks, touching on a variety of musical styles but always returning to that r'n'r groove.
Then there's the cast, a protean troupe that plays a wide variety of characters with smooth shifts, great voices and an elastic sense of movement.
Most of all, he's got Stew -- round, bespectacled Mark Stewart, who co-wrote the autobiographical musical with partner Heidi Rodewald. A versatile singer and guitar player, Stew comes across as a wise and knowing narrator with a sense of humor, taking focus when he needs it, fading into the ensemble when he doesn't.
The story is his own, though he is represented by a character known only as Youth (Daniel Breaker). The son of a single mother (Eisa Davis) in 1960s L.A., he is torn between the demands of his mother (and his church), his musical talent -- and the youthquake that is happening all around him. He discovers his love for music in church - but has a need to express himself through something other than the sacred music of which his mother approves.
His odyssey takes him to Amsterdam, drugs, sex and the other joys of a rock'n'roll youth in the early 1970s. In the process, he discovers a whole philosophy of life, love and art.
The songs both tell the story and comment upon it, allowing the older Stew to playfully undermine the pretensions of his younger self. Yet he never loses sight of his true message, which is that the pursuit of an artistic life is a noble, necessary calling. Art -- whether it is painting, writing or music -- is a crucial part of life, an expression of who we are, as individuals and as a people.
Yet that pursuit forces Youth to make hard choices in his life, which test his commitment to his art and teach him lessons about the price of pursuing your passion. As life-embracing and uplifting as Passing Strange is, it never attempts to obscure that nugget of realism.
The score will have you tapping your feet and fighting the urge to clap after each song. Again, Lee puts you in the thick of it -- it's like seeing a Broadway show from a seat you could never buy.
It may be a Spike Lee Joint, but he never forces his own stamp on it. He lets it flow in all its joyous wonder.
Passing Strange will play on PBS next year. While it will only receive theatrical openings Friday in New York and Los Angeles, it will also be available on demand at Sundance Selects. Don't pass up the chance to drench yourself in its full effect.
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